Where to Start With the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Franchise

Grab a slice and get ready for Ninja Turtle goodness.
Grab a slice and get ready for Ninja Turtle goodness.
Image: IDW, Warner Bros., Nickelodeon, and New Line Cinema

There’s never really been a better time to be into heroes that carry both a convenient half-shell and a love of pizza in their hearts: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a franchise has spent over 35 years telling stories of radical reptilian action across myriad mediums. Want to know where to start? Here are some suggestions.

On Film...

Illustration for article titled Where to Start With the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Franchise
Image: New Line

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The MovieA love of the Ninja Turtles can be mostly predicated on nostalgia, sure, but 30 years on, the original live-action Turtles movie still holds up really well. The suits are great and never rob the action of any physicality, and for an adaptation of the Ninja Turtles, it’s actually a solid character piece. A lot of the goofy charm about what made the animated version of the turtles so beloved is retained, but rendered in a style that really shouldn’t work but really rather does.

TMNTThe 2007 CG animated movie has no right being this good, but aside from any visual hangups you might have about seeing the Ninja Turtles rendered in this lanky 3D style—and the fact that it’s sort of predicated on you really caring about these characters more than anything else, given the plot is not all that (evil Patrick Stewart is always fun, though)—this is, kind of like the first live-action movie, a fun character piece. It digs into the bond between the brothers in some cool ways, and it uses its animated arena to give us some great ninja action, to boot.

On TV...

Fans may have bristled at the aesthetic, but Rise is one of the best looking cartoons around.
Fans may have bristled at the aesthetic, but Rise is one of the best looking cartoons around.
Image: Nickelodeon

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003)—Look, it’s gonna be heresy, but your nostalgia for the classic show can only go so far. Don’t go back to the original animated series, as much as your heart may want to; instead, go back to the first reboot that took things a little more in a direction inspired by the original comics. Matching an expanded universe with serialized storytelling, the 2003 Turtles cartoon treated the team as fully fleshed out characters that made for some really interesting arcs. Plus, if you do want your nostalgia fix, Turtles Forever, the TV movie that acted as a finale for the show, pairs up the 2003 team with the 1987 show’s goofy quartet in a pretty satisfying way.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2012)—When it was time for the Turtles to return to TV nearly a decade later, they did so with a vivid, 3D aesthetic that, inevitably had a bit of an “It Looks Different, and That’s Bad!!!” backlash from fans. (Quelle surprise, this is a bit of a running theme with this whole-ass franchise!) But the 2012 TMNT show is perhaps the peak of Turtles storytelling outside of the comics. Taking the serialized approach its 2003 predecessor dipped its toes into and running with it, it’s a really great balance between radical ‘tude goofs and grand-scaled, surprisingly dramatic adventures.


Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—Once again, the initial reaction to this series had a very “It Looks Different, and That’s Bad!!!” backlash; ironically, now it was fans who missed the CG stylization of the 2012 cartoon. But not only is Rise one of the best looking cartoons around, it’s fun as hell. There’s an energy to this take on the Ninja Turtles that is absolutely madcap, and it’s matched by some truly brilliant action sequences that are at times genuinely astonishing to witness. It may not quite have had the time to build up the storytelling chops of its predecessors, but it makes up with it in sheer attitude and style.


In Comics...

For many, IDW’s reboot of the Turtles has become a definitive take on the mutagenic brothers.
For many, IDW’s reboot of the Turtles has become a definitive take on the mutagenic brothers.
Image: Cory Smith (IDW)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Volume 2—The first volume of the original Kevin Eastman/Peter Laird Mirage comics is a weird one, not just because it’s infinitely darker and grittier-toned than you may expect out of the Turtles’ origins, it’s also incredibly inconsistent. The characters rarely got a chance to develop and grow as Eastman and Laird handed over issue slots to guest creative teams, meaning you don’t really get what the Ninja Turtles are amidst parodies of comics of the era and actual attempts to flesh out these characters. The second volume is a bit more consistent, developing across a few short arcs, and a better slice of “classic” Turtles for it.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles AdventuresArchie Comics did Ninja Turtles! Archie Comics did the second longest-running Ninja Turtles comic! Yes, really, it’s kind of wild. It started as a straight-up adaptation of the beloved animated series, but Adventures eventually began using the cartoon as a stepping stone to developing its own stories with that take on the Turtles. It expanded into a world that, by the end, felt almost unrecognizable from the beloved cartoon but in an interesting way.


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The IDW Collection—In 2011 Kevin Eastman, alongside a host of artists, returned to the character he’d helped bring to life decades prior for a brand new complete reboot of Turtles continuity at IDW. Heavily serialized and free to take new risks, this one developed new characters, and pushed the limits of what the Turtles could be as a team and individuals. The still-ongoing series is, in all honesty, perhaps the best Ninja Turtles around.


It lovingly weaves in elements from other interpretations of the TMNT mythos with bold and often shocking decisions of its own. It’s also done some really compelling work with each of the brothers as characters—work that has been allowed to persist and have an impact, lending a sense of stakes few ongoing superhero comics can really have. If you try any slice of TMNT goodness on this list, let it be these comics. They may not have the weight of nostalgia things like the original show and first movie do, but that doesn’t stop them from being what is arguably the definitive take on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

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James is a News Editor at io9. He wants pictures. Pictures of Spider-Man!

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Zach Miller

Being a TMNT mega-fan, I could go nuts here, but I’ll say this:

1. The original (live-action) movie is an incredible distillation of what makes this series work. The suits are genuinely fascinating, and work much better in live action than you’d think. That campfire scene gets me every time. Every subsequent movie is terrible except for TMNT, which is great in that it’s an original story that doesn’t feel like a TMNT story but totally works. The Platinum Dunes movies are garbage.

2. I have a big problem with every animated iteration of the Turtles (although I haven’t seen Rise yet): they all focus too heavily on Shredder. Shredder is a minor villain in the original comics, but he’s upgraded to Big Bad in TV show. He got a nice twist in the 2003 series, but ultimately it’s still Shredder. Because there are no other villains that are as well-characterized, the overarching plot never really moves forward, because the writers have no idea what to do without him. HOWEVER, once the 2012 series killed him off (at the end of season...4?), that show exploded with a creativity that I wished it had from the beginning.

The Usagi Yojimbo storyline in that 2012 series is worth watching by itself. It is *chef’s kiss* perfection.

3. IDW released a series of four or five “Ultimate Collections” of Volume I of the comics. Buy those. They include all of the Eastman & Laird-produced stories, which form that basis for pretty much everything the Turtles have done since. The remainder of Volume I is abstract to the point of parody, as is “Tales of the TMNT.” Volume II is good but poisoned by Jim Lawson, who is the series’ most prolific illustrator who I can’t stand. Volume IV suffers a similar fate. Volume III is published by Image in 90's, and it’s a real trip, but maybe not worth it unless you can track down the recent IDW reprints in TPB form.

But the IDW primary series? Unbelievable. It’s a huge series, with multiple spin-off stories and lots of story threads to keep track of, but I’ll be goddamned if Issue #50 and Issue #100 both landed hard. Right in the feels, as the kids say. It may be tempting to start this series from #101 (since it changes the game), but you would be missing 100+ issues of amazement.

Archie Adventure Series got REALLY GOOD in its back half, maybe some of the best TMNT storytelling I’ve seen, with great art, but it got too “dark” and corporate shut it down. Real dick move. RIP, Future Turtles. Maybe IDW will bring that team back to finish the “Forever War” storyline that was supposed to close out this series.